Monday, May 31, 2010

Review of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

From The Telegraph (Calcutta, India) --


By: Ipsita Chakravarty --
March 26, 2010 --

The Swan Thieves By Elizabeth Kostova, Little, Brown, Rs 595

Elizabeth Kostova seems to possess a love for the literal. The Swan Thieves, she tells you, is about “a mystery in the heart of the rise of French Impressionism”; it is “a story about painting and painters”. The subject of her first book, The Historian, had attracted her as she is “interested in history”. Kostova also stresses the role of “research” in both novels. Shortly after starting work on The Swan Thieves, she mentions reading A.S. Byatt. One can’t help feeling this might have been injudicious candour.

Robert Olivier is a painter. He likes the French Impressionists. He’s obsessed with a woman he may not even know. One day, he flies at a painting in the National Gallery. Admitted into a mental home, he refuses to speak. As the story progresses, this rather interesting situation is sidetracked. Olivier must be crazy in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. At least, that’s almost all the explanation you’ll get.

Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist, sets out to record Olivier’s history. This entails sentimental reminiscences by women in the painter’s life and trips to exotic locales. Marlow’s perambulations are interspersed by letters between two 19th-century artists who had been lovers. As promised, everyone in the novel paints copiously.

The women are good-looking and, through sheer insistence, one is made aware that Olivier has a looming presence, “dark locks” and dishevelled clothes. Each character comes to that conclusion independently, several times over. Kostova seems to confuse her characters with the paintings they profess to love.

Perhaps this is partly intentional. Kostova begins with a rather obvious mis en scène, conflating text and painting. Presumably, the story that is about to be told must be seen within the framework of this painting. What follows is relentless description, often in an irritatingly formulaic cadence: “it was too pale, translucent”, “The furniture was modern and unobtrusive, incidental”. Sometimes Kostova has a stab at intensity. Lines like “and I felt his selfhood go down through me like lightning” certainly make for a lively read.

A glut of adjectives and frames clutter The Swan Thieves. The novel refers to so many contextual frameworks that it confuses itself. The myth of Leda and the swan is evoked, apparently to question traditional notions of power and sexual domination that it employs. Yeats’s poem is dutifully quoted. Kostova succeeds in making one almost comfortable with this disturbing myth. For a novel about obsession, it’s remarkably placid.

Painters diligently discuss what they feel about painting; a sentiment largely centred on paint under fingernails. Yet the engagement with French Impressionism seems superficial at best. Perhaps Impressionist painting, with its lilt of light and shadow, its fervent brush-stroke of heartfelt immediacy, its rebellious energy, is difficult to depict. Kostova periodically utters “Sisley” and “Monet”, describes paintings in laboured detail and offers a tenuous historical link through the epistolary narrative. Impressionism must serve a functional purpose; it must provide an object for the quest undertaken by Olivier’s psychiatrist.

In yet another ambitious frame of reference, Andrew Marlow is named after Joseph Conrad’s famous narrator. Conrad’s Marlow tells the story of the mysterious Lord Jim and goes on a quest that leads him to the depths of the human psyche, to the very heart of darkness. Andrew Marlow’s quest leads him to Olivier’s secret and, according to Kostova, to a “mystery” that lies at the “heart” of French Impressionism. Only it’s more of a puzzle, complete with clues and a solution, a triumph of the literal.

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